“One German interrogator managed to draw crucial military secrets from more than 90 percent of Allied fliers he questioned. And he did so using some rather unconventional methods — namely kindness.”
WHILE TALK RADIO hosts, political pundits and even a certain former U.S. vice president may be quick to defend the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques (or torture) on enemy combatants, history shows that carrots often work better than sticks.
Case in point: According to the BBC’s history site, one Second World War German interrogator managed to draw crucial military secrets from more than 90 percent of Allied fliers he questioned. And he did so using some rather unconventional methods — namely kindness.
While the newly-captured air crew who stood before Hanns Scharff at the temporary Luftwaffe ‘transit camp’ at Oberursel, Germany were expecting to face pliers, thumbscrews or maybe rubber truncheons, what they got instead was hospitality, sympathy and even friendship. In fact, pilots became so close with Scharff, they ended up revealing a treasure trove of details about their planes, weaponry as well as air combat tactics.
Arguably the most accomplished interrogator in all of Nazi Germany, the 32-year-old Rastenberg native had no experience in intelligence gathering before the war – his methods were entirely self-taught. A one-time car salesman, Scharff was drafted in 1939 and assigned to a panzer grenadier outfit — only his fluency in English saved him from being posted to the front lines. He was promoted to lance corporal and transferred to military intelligence where he studied interrogation techniques. In 1943, Scharff began questioning captured American fliers.
He soon realized that a softer touch when dealing with POWs yielded far more information than the routine approach, which relied heavily on fear, deprivation and intimidation. He often presented himself as a friend to the isolated prisoners, shunning a uniform in favour of civilian clothes, and warning POWs that if they didn’t provide him with something useful the SS might intervene.
Another of Scharff’s tactics was to glean as much as he could from a prisoner’s personal belongings and then use the innocuous fragments of information to create the impression that the Nazis had detailed dossiers on each and every Allied flier. His prisoners often believed that anything they disclosed was probably already well known to the Germans.
And Scharff didn’t stop there.
In order to put his prisoners ever more at ease, he organized leisurely day trips to zoos and local attractions and even planned hiking excursions, picnics as well as spins in German warplanes. All the while, Scharff would look for opportunities to draw more intelligence from the prisoners about Allied equipment, tactics and strategy.  He even had his detainees sign a guest book before being transferred to other camps.
Amazingly, many POWs who were ‘entertained’ by Scharff kept in touch with their old interrogator following the war. He became close friends with bomber hero Jimmy Doolittle, as well as the top American European fighter ace Francis Gabreski, who was one of Scharff’s ‘guests’ at Oberursel. In fact, in 1980, he was even invited to attend a veterans’ reunion in the United States with some of his former prisoners. Astonishingly, Scharrf was also asked to consult the Pentagon on interrogation techniques. He wrote a book about his experiences during the war too. It’s available here.
Scharff moved to America in the 1950s and pursued a career as a visual artist. His mosaics adorn the California state capitol building, the University of Southern California and Dixie College in Utah. A large mosaic of his also hangs to this day in the Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World, Florida.
Hanns Scharff died in 1992 at the age of 85.
(Originally published on Oct. 19, 2012)
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